Sunday, 01 December 2013 20:27

The Dark Side of the Moon

Article as it appeared in Cosmopolitan Magazine. By Kim Garner

Full-moon parties are the epitome of summer abandon – but they don’t always end in happy memories.

Full moon parties have long been known as the ultimate parties. But while most stories from the shores of these beach events usually begin with ‘Best night ever!’, some of them are less than celebratory. Full moon parties can take a turn for the dangerous – even the tragic- if you don’t party smartly.

When the Moon is Full…

Full-moon parties started on Haad Rin beach, on the island of Ko Pha Ngan, Thailand – and that’s where the most famous one still takes place each month around the full moon. The best attended is usually the New Year’s Eve full-moon party in December. Most frequented by YOLOing Westerners, it sounds like the kind of party reserved for coming-of-age, Superbad-style movies. The moon is high, the place is swarming with tanned tourists in beachwear who cover themselves in neon body paint, the DJ’s play dance music all night long, the booze is cheap and served in buckets, and you can party until the sun comes up on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. And if jolling only once a month doesn’t fit with your holiday plans, you can go to the black-moon or half-moon parties, which take place in between full-moon events. Essentially, in Thailand there’s a party every week.

The country’s parties are so popular, in fact, that versions of the same thing have popped up in many countries around the world. There’s Kendwa Beach full-moon party in Zanzibar, the parties that usually take place in the middle of nowhere in Manali and in the Parvati Valley in India, and the full-moon event on Magnetic Island in Australia, among others. Locally similar bashes are thrown along the coast, including Moonstruck on Clifton4th Beach in Cape Town and, of course, the matric ‘Rage’ festivals in Ballito, Umhlanga and Plettenberg bay, which offer nights of full music, dancing, drinking and hedonism on the beach during December.

When Good Parties Go Bad…

There’s nothing wrong with a good party on the beach. But often these full-moon events turn into something less cool than just a good time.

Earlier this year, Mark Kent, the UK ambassador to Thailand, cautioned young British tourists against the dangers of the New-Year’s Eve full-moon party in Thailand. The warning came after 22-year old Brit Stephen Ashton was shot dead when he was caught in crossfire during a fight that broke out at the Ko Pha Ngan New Year’s Eve full-moon party. Kent spoke about attacks on tourists in particular, usually by local gang members in Thailand. According to UK newspaper The Telegraph, Kent said, ‘These attacks are particularly common around the full-moon parties and generally occur late at night near bars in Haad Rin. Exercise caution in this area at any time, but especially after dark.’

Kent isn’t the only official to warn tourists about the dangers of full moon parties. In September, Larry Cunningham, Australia’s honorary consul on Phuket, warned wannabe partygoers to watch what they consume while partying in Thailand. This may just be the most important message. Tourists looking for a buzz may come across a drug called kratom, a Thai leaf from the coffee family that offers a natural high. But Cunningham warns that ‘it is often mixed with an insect repellant as well as cough medicine … leaving the users in a stupefied and vulnerable state.’ Even if you are not the kind of person who, at home, would dabble in a little natural high – or something stronger, such a Ecstasy or cocaine – inhibitions may fly out the backpack when you’re on holiday.

‘When we’re at home, our family, friends, acquaintances and community help us maintain our social inhibitions,’ says Durban psychologist Claire Newton. ‘We know that we could get into trouble or that we’ll be embarrassed if they see some of the inappropriate things we want to do, so we don’t do them. But away from home we don’t have these limitations. Our thinking is often, “Nobody here knows e and they will never see me again anyway, so I can behave any way I like.” Alcohol and certain drugs also serve to lower our inhibitions.’

Your best bet is to steer of anything illegal at these events. Aside from the physical dangers of taking a substance that could make you delirious and ill in a strange place, there are other long term dangers to consider, such as being arrested. Having cottoned on to the fact that tourists are hitting up full-moon parties to abuse substances, the Thai police have stepped up their presence. Many travel bloggers who have attended these mention that the police are usually the ones selling drugs, hoping to make arrests.

According to the blog twenty-somethingtravel.com, ‘If you buy drugs from someone on the beach, that person is almost certainly under cover and will bust you. They have quotas to meet and they do not give a crap about your excuses.’ If you are luck and the police don’t arrest you, you’ll be paying hefty bribes – in US dollars, please.

It’s also worth watching what you drink. In Thailand the booze at full-moon parties is generally sold in buckets. Usually, it’s a combination of whisky, rum or vodka and caffeinated energy drinks. The danger is that it could also contain something else. As Jade Matthews, 28, from Johannesburg puts it, ‘The cane or vodka they sell you in buckets at a full-moon party is actually their local rubbish, bottled with [other]branding.’ So, there’s no way of knowing what you are really drinking.

Matthews also mentions that, while the party is a lot of fun, there’s a very real danger that your drink will be spiked. ‘It didn’t happen to me luckily,’ she says, ‘but I did have to help a Norwegian girl whose drink had been badly spiked. I think some people underestimate the strength of the booze and drink too much, or get their drinks spiked. That’s also when women are in danger of being assaulted by men.’ There are countless comments on blogs and forums online from women who have been abused at these events. A news piece written by Australian journalists from Sunday Night appears on the news programme’s blog on Yahoo! Australia’s website. The journalists spent a night at a full-moon party in Thailand and recounted what they saw. The blog reads, ‘Australian girls treated at a Bangkok Hospital told us how [the]doctors lamented that the cases they treat most often [after] a full-moon party are the rapes of young foreign women, mostly unreported [due to lack of sympathy from] local police.’

The notoriety of Thai beach bashes may account for the large number of reports on the dangers of those parties in particular, but they are by no means restricted to Thailand. Local beach bashes attended by too many people to monitor closely are danger zones too. Along with assault, drink spiking and drugs, beach parties also bring about other concerns.

‘New Year’s events usually escalate to their busiest state during night-time, and that’s when injuries occur,’ says Christo Venter, a crisis communicator at ER24. ‘Dangerous objects hidden in the beach sand could result in injury: broken glass, burning cigarettes, bottle caps and so on.’ And, of course, there’s the threat of wallets, cellphones and cash. In extreme cases beach parties have resulted in drownings, especially when people opt for a midnight swim while drunk.

No-one wants to ruin the fun. It’s December, which means you get to jol like you don’t have to work for three weeks. Just make sure that, whether you’re at your local beach or a full-moon celebration thousands of kilometers from home, you’re always careful and aware.

Stay Safe at a Full-Moon Party

Have fun but, to steer clear of trouble or tragedy, have responsible fun of the legal variety. Christo Venter, a crisis communicator at ER24, offers this advice for staying safe at any beach party:

  • Stay hydrated. When consuming alcohol, drinking water regularly could assist in slowing down the effects of alcohol (and you might not feel as terrible the next morning).
  • Always stay with someone you know. Avoid being alone with strangers.
  • Have one person in a group refrain from drinking. That way, one of you can keep a lookout and drive the others home afterwards.
  • Don’t swim in the ocean at night. When it’s dark, any king of light from the shore only reaches a short distance onto the water. This makes it difficult to find someone in the sea at night, and hypothermia can set in very quickly.
  • Be extremely vigilant about your belongings, and only take along what is absolutely necessary.